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CT Democrats diversify in picks for treasurer and secretary of the state

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Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk won the party endorsement for secretary of the state at the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

Erick Russell picked up the Democratic endorsement for state treasurer, and Rep. Stephanie Thomas got the endorsement for secretary of the state after several frantic hours of lobbying and vote-swapping at the Democratic convention in Hartford on Saturday.

The competitions for state treasurer and secretary of the state were on center stage as a crowded field of candidates vied for the party’s stamp of approval heading into the Democratic primaries this summer. And considerations of race and gender on the ticket played a key role in the selection of Thomas and Russell, who are Black.

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Erick Russell won the Democratic nod for state treasurer at the party convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

In the treasurer’s race, Russell, a bond attorney and former vice chair of the state party from New Haven, outflanked both Dita Bhargava, a former Wall Street trader from Greenwich, and Karen DuBois-Walton, chief executive of the New Haven Housing Authority. He won more than 47% of the delegates on the first ballot, prompting Bhargava and DuBois-Walton to forgo a second round of voting.

The party also tossed its support behind Thomas, a Norwalk resident and state representative, for secretary of the state. She defeated an accomplished list of candidates, including Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, Rep. Joshua Elliott of Hamden and New Haven’s Health. Director Maritza Bond.

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Karen Dubois-Walton, a candidate for state treasurer, addressed the Democratic state convention in Hartford on Saturday, May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

But with so many people in the running, it took three rounds of voting from the delegates before Thomas could secure her majority and the endorsement.

Locking up the party endorsement won’t guarantee Russell and Thomas the Democratic nomination later this year.

But it could give them a distinct advantage in the months ahead as they enter the primary season. It will also ensure that their names are at the top of the ballot when Connecticut Democrats enter the voting booths in August.

The offices of treasurer and secretary of the state are vitally important for Connecticut residents and the aspirations of the Democratic party, which is trying to maintain its hold on every statewide elected office.

The state treasurer is responsible for managing Connecticut’s investments and the pension funds for state employees. And the secretary of the state is integral to the Democratic party’s plans to expand absentee and mail-in voting throughout the state.

The candidates for both offices took their turns on stage at the Xfinity Theater in Hartford highlighting their job histories and making the case for why they would be the best person to run Connecticut’s trust funds or the state’s elections.

“I know how to invest,” said Bhargava, who also ran for treasurer in 2018. “I’ve posted returns. I’ve managed large portfolios. This is what I know.”

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Maritza Bond, seeking the endorsement for secretary of the state at the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. ANDREW BROWN / CTMIRROR.ORG

Diversity considerations

But many Democratic officials in attendance were also weighing another set of qualifications: namely, the candidates’ genders, races, ethnicities and abilities to attract voters to the polls.

Several delegates recognized that the contests were being influenced by considerations about the party’s diversity. Many wanted to show that the party’s preferred candidates reflected the state’s diverse electorate, including Connecticut’s Black and Hispanic populations.

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Sen. Matt Lesser, a candidate for secretary of the state, addresses the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

In the treasurer’s race, Russell and Dubois-Walton are Black, and Bhargava is Indian American. In the race for secretary of the state, Thomas was the only Black candidate. Santiago and Bond are Hispanic, and Lesser and Elliott are white.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General William Tong are all seeking reelection this year and are running unopposed in the primary. Meanwhile, Rep. Sean Scanlon had no competition for the endorsement for state comptroller.

That meant that the contests for treasurer and secretary of the state were the only real opportunities for delegates to build more diversity among the party’s picks for statewide offices.

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Treasurer candidate Dita Bhargava speaks to a delegate at the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

That diversity will be key, many Democrats believe, as the party seeks to turn out voters this year, especially in cities like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.

Thomas J. Clarke II, a party delegate and Hartford City Councilman, said building a diverse coalition of candidates is an important part of growing the party and convincing younger people to turn out to vote.

“The ticket really needs to be reflective of the community,” he said.

In his opening speech on the floor, Russell hinted at the need for the party to broaden its appeal among voters of color.

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Rep. Hilda Santiago campaigns for the nomination for secretary of the state at the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. ANDREW BROWN / CTMIRROR.ORG

“You have a tough decision in front of you,” Russell told the crowd. “It’s an important decision to determine how this state looks. … How you vote right now will make the difference in turning out the vote in November.”

The endorsements weren’t the only prize that brought the candidates to the convention on Saturday, however. They were also looking to lock in a spot on the primary ballot later this year.

Many of the candidates were successful in garnering enough support to qualify for the primary in August, when voters will have the final say in who represents the party in the general election.

All three Democratic candidates for state treasurer, and four of the five candidates for secretary of the state, earned a spot on the primary ballot through that process.

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Rep. Josh Elliott, a candidate for secretary of the state, addresses the Democratic convention in Hartford on May 7, 2022. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC

Rep. Joshua Elliott, who was also running to maintain his seat in the state legislature, was the only candidate to come up short in his attempts to net at least 15% of the votes on a single ballot.

While bowing out, Elliott made the appeal to his fellow Democrats to unite behind whichever candidates win in August and to head into the general election with a united front.

“We’re stronger together. Let’s come together,” Elliott said.